When Judah and the Lion visit Billboard's offices on the release day of third LP Pep Talks earlier this May, it's part of a major New York promo blitz for the Tennessee alternative trio — one that also involves appearances on The Today Show and Late Night With Seth Meyers, and their first-ever billboard going up in Times Square. "We were here for like a day and a half [for our last album]," explains frontman Judah Akers. "This time it’s almost a whole week."
The increase in attention makes sense for the group, considering that 2016 sophomore album Folk Hop N' Roll — whose name also provides a rough description of their highly hybridized sound — spawned the group's first three top 20 hits on Billboard's Alternative Songs listing, including the chart-topping lead single "Take It All Back." The album's success led to Judah and the Lion playing numerous festivals throughout 2017 and 2018, and even opening for alternative superstars Twenty One Pilots on the American leg of their Emotional Roadshow tour — along with "All Time Low" hitmaker Jon Bellion, who calls the group to congratulate them on the release of Pep Talks at the outset of their discussion with Billboard.
"I think that songs that people know make your show that much better — we love playing festivals and playing music with people that know our songs," Akers says in appreciation of his band now having bonafide hit singles to perform live. "So of course we’re after [doing that again with this album]."
Judah and the Lion have been a fascinating presence in the alternative landscape since their 2016 breakthrough, because while many of the genre's most popular acts of this decade have either been earnest folk-rock purveyors or pop-leaning, collab-friendly sonic inclusivists, Akers & Co. are the rare act that's managed to have it both ways. As a band propelled instrumentally by banjo and mandolin, folk is forever in their sonic makeup, but their booming beats often split the difference between EDM and hip-hop, while Akers' penchant for headliner-sized hooks puts their choruses in league with the likes of Kings of Leon and Imagine Dragons. And though few banjo-forward acts of recent years have managed to have any kind of sense of humor about themselves, Judah and the Lion have included self-referential nods to their own use of the instrument in both of their last two albums, including the memorable "It feels so nice when the people sing along/ They're singing along with the banjo" callout in "Take It All Back."
"We started out and felt like we had to be a folk group," recalls banjo player Nate Zuercher of the trio's early years. "Brian [Macdonald, mandolin] and I were very new to mandolin and banjo, and kind of felt this pressure that we had to wear the top hat and suspenders and fit in to this vein that just felt right… But we grew up listening to just about everything between the three of us. So as we got more comfortable and aware that maybe we didn’t have to fall inside of this box, it opened up the door to try things and experiment."
At the midpoint of Judah and the Lion's varied musical and lyrical interests lies a perhaps unlikely sweet spot: sports soundtracking. Their sonic bombast and overall message of positivity and encouragement have made them a natural fit for jock jams, and they even played the second intermission at the NHL's Winter Classic this year. It's a match the band has leaned into, fashioning their wordless Pep Talks intro title track as "our own [sports] chant for the fans to sing," and including a pop-punk bonus track on the album actually titled "Sportz." "I think there’s a huge parallel to sports [with Judah and the Lion], with fighting through adversity and being unified as a team, and pushing forward no matter what the circumstances are," offers Macdonald. "I think part of our DNA as a band is to kind of have that message of hope and positivity, even in the midst of what this album entails, which is like a really hard story."
Indeed, while the widescreen sound of Pep Talks definitely reflects the increased confidence of a band with considerable radio and touring success under its belt, the lyrics go almost completely in the other direction. While Akers' band was blowing up in the years following Folk Hop, his family was falling apart, with the death of his aunt and the divorce of his parents. The ensuing rootlessness and insecurity that Akers felt on tour is put on full display in the new album's lead single "Quarter-Life Crisis," in which he cries over a banjo-led stomp, "I used to feel so strong, now I feel like a loser/ These voices in my head got me backed up into a corner/ Oh, I can't do this all alone."
Much of the story of Pep Talks is focused on Akers' frayed relationship with his parents. "Crisis" follow-up single "Why Did You Run?" focuses on a situation when Akers' mom called him from jail to help get her out, and his dad didn't answer when he then called him for assistance. "i'm ok" makes Akers' family troubles even more explicit ("My aunt's gone and my parents divorced"), as he pleads with the well-wishers in his life, "I'm OK/ Please stop asking me." Akers' parents are such a pronounced presence in the LP that it only feels right when his mom actually shows up in the closer, "Family," an answering machine message where she expresses choked-up pride in her son for his lyrical directness ("I think you did the right thing, and I think not only may it bring help and hope to a lot of others, it gave me a lot of hope").
"The last thing that I would ever want to do is publicly shame my parents for anything they already felt bad about or not very proud of," Akers explains. "Coz I’m really close to my parents. I ended up writing an email [to them about the album], and just going, 'This is kind of like my side of the story, and blah blah blah.' And after the first listen, that was when my mom called and left me that voicemail. And I just started crying, just tearing up. And I was like, 'Man, this just kind of puts the whole story of the record in motion even more…' Because it makes my mom into a physical human being that people feel now." (Akers' dad doesn't appear on the album, but the singer-songwriter says he enjoyed the album, and respected its honesty: "He’s always obsessed with people like Taylor Swift that write about real-life stuff.")
And of course, the trio couldn't resist putting Judah's mom in the hook of one of their most stadium-ready sing-alongs yet: "Don't Mess With My Mama," whose title (along with a mega-drop) comprises basically the entirety of the song's chorus. "We played it for the first time last night, just teaching the crowd one time, they already had it like [snaps]," Akers says. "It’s a simple phrase. I grew up obsessed with the band Queen, and not to compare ourselves to Queen or anything like that, but they were so good at those simple phrases, 'We will rock you,' 'We are the champions…' Those simple phrases that so simple, but they were just hits. They made them stadium anthems. I don’t know if 'Don’t Mess With My Mama' is a stadium anthem, but last night, it’s like, after one time through…"
It's yet to be seen whether Pep Talks will take Judah and the Lion to actual stadium status. The reception to the album from fans and on the charts (where it debuted at No. 18 on the Billboard 200, easily the band's highest showing to date) has been strong, and the band's gotten a nice boost from a guest appearance by recent album of the year Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves, who duets with Akers on the album's softer ballad "Pictures." ("She was just like, 'Aw, I cannot believe that I got nominated, this is so surprising…' he recalls of her reaction following Golden Hour's nomination. "And we were like, 'You're gonna win.'") But the band hasn't quite reached the commercial heights of "Take It All Back" with any of the new set's singles yet, and generally speaking, there aren't as many alternative acts from either the folk-rock or alt-pop corners crossing over to that level as there used to be.
Judah and the Lion do have those ambitions — "We’d love to be on top of Billboard, we’d love to win Grammys, we’d love to be an arena band… we have all those goals, and we feel like we have the drive to do that," Akers attests — but the frontman again maintains it's not the band's top priority, particularly on this highly personal album. "Our main goal is just for this message to reach the people that it means to. And hopefully within that, our message of hope and have unity or whatever amongst people feeling isolated in the world, or alone or divided — hopefully this can be a record that brings people together and allow people to also share their story, and to try to make their story beautiful."